(Washington, D.C.). Almost three in four D.C. public high school dress codes say students can be pulled out of class or school for dress code violations—hurting girls’ education and promoting race and sex discrimination, according to a new report released by the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). The report found that Black girls in D.C. are especially harmed by dress and grooming codes, and enforcement of the codes can cause them to fall behind in school simply because of the clothes they wear or the style of their hair or makeup. Dress codes threaten their long-term earning potential and can exacerbate longstanding and widespread racial and gender inequalities.
Dress Coded: Black Girls, Bodies, and Bias in D.C. Schools analyzes D.C. public high schools’ dress code policies and examines their impact on Black girls. The report, which was co-authored by 20 Black girls who attend or recently attended a D.C. public middle or high school, lifts up the real life experiences of students in D.C. schools. The report reveals what many students already know, but few adults acknowledge: Black girls are routinely shamed, pulled out of class, and sometimes suspended simply for how they look.
“It’s outrageous that girls are losing critical class time simply for what they are wearing,” said NWLC Education Fellow and report co-author, Kayla Patrick. “This sends a disturbing message to all students: What a girl looks like is more important than what she learns and thinks. No girl should ever have to forfeit her education because her shirt is the wrong color or she has a hole in her jeans.”
Nasirah Fair, a co-author and student at Wilson High School, says that dress codes “target young women and make us feel alienated within our own classrooms.” For example, 65 percent of dress codes in D.C. regulate the length of skirts and 42 percent ban tights or leggings. Beatrice a co-author from Phelps ACE High School said, “When it comes between an item of clothing and a child’s education, the child’s education should always reign supreme.”
Dress codes create distinctions both through rules that target girls (such as prohibition of leggings) and Black students (such as prohibition of hair wraps) and through discriminatory enforcement based on race, sex, and body type. Staff enforcement of dress codes can also communicate the false and harmful message that girls who wear certain clothes are “asking for” abuse. As Sousa Middle School student and co-author Samaria Short said, “The adults at this school say that if girls wear tight stuff, the boys think that it’s okay to touch them. I think everyone should keep their hands to themselves, no matter what anybody is wearing.”
“Too often, dress codes are used to scrutinize and target Black girls specifically,” said NWLC Vice President for Education & Workplace Justice, Emily Martin. “This type of dress code enforcement can result in daily disruptions and punishments that pull girls out of the classroom, rather than allowing them to learn and thrive.”
These problems can be addressed by eliminating dress codes altogether, but for those schools that maintain them, the report offers detailed guidelines for how schools can revise and implement dress and grooming codes in a way that values students and embraces diversity, including keeping students in the classroom even if they violate a dress code and ensuring that the codes are gender neutral and do not rely on race or body type stereotypes.
NWLC education experts and several students are available to discuss the impact of dress codes on the education of Black girls.
The National Women’s Law Center is a non-profit organization that has been working since 1972 to advance and protect women’s equality and opportunity. The Center focuses on major policy areas of importance to women and their families including economic security, education, employment and health, with special attention given to the concerns of low-income women. For more information on the Center, visit: www.nwlc.org.